You can stick your em-dash up your dot dot dot

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So once again I find myself intensely irritated by a growing wave of practice that is touted as correct when its correctness is entirely arbitrary. I’m talking about the finer points of typography.

A recent post by Christopher Phin, called Top Ten Typographic Mistakes Everyone Makes really exemplified that for me (sorry Chris, nothing personal!) with remarks like this:

there’s little chance that using a period instead of an interpunct will obscure or confuse your meaning – but they are nevertheless wrong

And this:

those aren’t proper quote marks; they should be sixty-six and ninety-nine quotes

The use of interpunct is not more correct than period, the use of straight quotes is not wrong, and (my personal bugbear) the use of three dots instead of ellipses is perfectly fine. Exactly as with grammar, the details we’re talking about here are not rules, they are conventions, and no more right or wrong than the collective will that made them conventional.

We see similar examples in grammar, for example over split-infinitives. According to the prescribed rules of grammar it’s wrong to split an English infinitive: to go boldly rather than to boldly go. But language is a living thing and it changes all the time. Really, the finer points of grammar are arbitrary; grammar should serve only to make sure that language is collectively understood. To correct grammatical mistakes in order to ensure clarity and understanding is one thing, but to correct them simply in order to adhere to an arbitrary set of rules is just anal.

And I feel the same way about typography. Who cares what kind of quotes you use, what kind of dashes, or whether you put ellipsis or three dots? Who even notices the difference, apart from typography nazis?

The only possible reason I can see for caring about this is accessibility, and how assistive technologies describe particular characters.

But as Jason Kiss’ recent research into how character references are spoken by popular screenreaders shows, there is huge variation and discrepancy in how many characters are handled, such a discrepancy that there cannot be a strong argument for using them based on this behavior alone. But even if there were, I suggest it might be counter-productive.

I mean who the hell knows what ellipsis means? Conversely who understands what dot dot dot means? Everybody understands the latter, but very few understand the former. And what is an ellipsis after all, other than a formalization of three dots?

So I won’t use uncommon typographical symbols. I think the fewer different characters there are, the better our collective understanding will be. For me there is only one kind of double-quote mark, one kind of period, and it’s dot dot dot every time.

James EdwardsJames Edwards
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James is a freelance web developer based in the UK, specialising in JavaScript application development and building accessible websites. With more than a decade's professional experience, he is a published author, a frequent blogger and speaker, and an outspoken advocate of standards-based development.

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